by Stephen Herbert
During the 1990s two unique photographic portraits previously unknown to scholars, of Charles Dickens and his wife Catherine, came to light. Both were taken by John E. Mayall using the early daguerreotype process.
In 2001 I was able to view the portrait of Charles, and became intrigued as to where it fitted into the chronology of photographs of the great writer. Later, I was lucky enough to also view the portrait of Catherine. I was able to research these two ‘new’ portraits, and another two images of Dickens taken from daguerreotypes. It was a very enjoyable activity; the daguerreotype is a subject outside of my specialist knowledge, so it was also a challenge. This monograph, produced in time for the Charles Dickens Bicentenary celebrations in 2012, was the result.
Please be aware that this was a preliminary study made ten years ago. The sequencing and dating of the daguerreotypes is tentative, and no doubt much more could be added to the story of these fascinating images by those in the fields of Dickens Studies and early photography. I am not a regular researcher in this area; the original monograph on which this two-part post was based was commissioned by the owner of the Dickens daguerreotypes. I’m not aware of further research concerning the photographs outlined in these posts, but no doubt there will have been new discoveries and new interpretations.
With special thanks to Christine.
Stephen Herbert, Hastings, July 2021
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Louis Daguerre’s new marvel had been unveiled to the world in 1839, a few weeks after the publication of Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens. The Pickwick Papers and Nicholas Nickleby had also been published in the late 1830s, and Dickens was already famous when he had his photograph taken – an image now sadly lost – in London’s first daguerreotype studio, operated by Richard Beard, just weeks after it opened. Dickens’s portrait had been painted many times before he visited Antoine Claudet’s studio in London for a daguerreotype sitting, around 1850. The writer’s next ‘counterfeit presentments’ – including a stereoscopic image – were taken by John E. Mayall of Regent Street, who was also responsible for a daguerreotype of Catherine Dickens around 1853. By then photography was changing, and the daguerreotype process was losing favour. Dickens would have his photograph taken hundreds of times in various formats before his death in 1870. This monograph investigates the very few early daguerreotype images of the great author and his wife.
Part One: The daguerreotype portraits of Charles and Catherine Dickens
The earliest photographic images of Charles Dickens (1812-1870) known to survive were taken in the early 1850s by the daguerreotype process, but they were not the first of the great author. Louis Daguerre’s new marvel had been unveiled to the world in 1839, a few weeks after the publication of Oliver Twist. The Pickwick Papers and Nicholas Nickleby had also been published in the late 1830s, and Dickens was already famous. The technique is concisely described by photographic historian David Simkin:
‘The daguerreotype process was the first practicable method of obtaining permanent images with a camera. The man who gave his name to the process and perfected the method of producing direct positive images on a silver-coated copper plate was Louis-Jacques-Mandé Daguerre (1787-1851), a French artist and scenic painter. Daguerre had began experimenting with ways of fixing the images formed by the camera obscura around 1824, but in 1829 he entered into partnership with Joseph Nicéphore Niépce (1765-1833), a French amateur scientist and inventor who, in 1826, had succeeded in securing a picture of the view from his window by using a a camera obscura and a pewter plate coated with bitumen. Niépce called his picture-making process heliography (‘sun drawing’), but although he had managed to produce a permanent image using a camera, the exposure time was around eight hours. Niépce later abandoned pewter plates in favour of silver-plated sheets of copper and discovered that the vapour from iodine reacted with the silver coating to produce silver iodide, a light sensitive compound.
After the death of Niépce in 1833, Daguerre continued to experiment with copper plates coated with silver iodide to produce direct positive pictures. Daguerre discovered that the latent image on an exposed plate could be brought out or ‘developed’ with the fumes from warmed mercury. The use of mercury vapour meant that photographic images could be produced in 20 to 30 minutes rather than hours. In 1837, Daguerre found a way of ‘fixing’ the photographic images with a solution of common salt. Two years later, he followed the suggestion of Sir John Herschel (1792-1871) and adopted hyposulphate of soda (now thiosulphate of soda) as the fixing agent.
Daguerre began making successful pictures using his improved process from 1837. On 19 August 1839, at a meeting in Paris, the Daguerreotype Process was revealed to the world.’
Combining a number of different inventors’ techniques for reducing exposure time to less than two minutes Richard Beard, a former coal merchant, opened a photographic portrait studio at the Polytechnic, 309 Regent Street, on 23 March 1841. Exactly two months later, on 23 May 1841, Dickens wrote to his friend Angela Burdett Coutts,
‘If anybody should entreat you to go to the Polytechnic Institution and have a Photographic Likeness done – don’t be prevailed upon, on any terms. The Sun is a great fellow in his way, but portrait painting is not his line. I speak from experience, having suffered dreadfully.
Always believe me, with sincerity, Faithfully Yours,
It would seem, then, that Dickens had had his photograph taken – an image now sadly lost – in the first weeks of the opening of Europe’s first daguerreotype studio. George Cruikshank produced a picture of the interior of Beard’s Polytechnic Studio at around the same time that Dickens sat for his daguerreotype portrait.
Brenda Weeden, former archivist at the Polytechnic, succinctly describes the scene:
‘The subject is sitting on a raised platform which can be moved to face the sun, and his head is held in place by a clamp. The camera is on the shelf opposite the sitter, and the photographer on the steps is checking the exposure time. The couple on the left are examining their tiny daguerreotype portraits, measuring about 4 x 5 cm, through magnifying glasses.’
Beard’s first competitor was Antoine Claudet, who opened a London studio in June, 1841. Dickens’s likeness had been sketched and painted many times before he visited Claudet’s studio for a daguerreotype sitting, around 1851.
Antoine François Jean Claudet (1797-1867) was born in Lyon, France, and had been a student of L.J.M. Daguerre. By the time of Daguerre’s invention Claudet was a successful London businessman, and had visited Daguerre in Paris and obtained details of the process. Having acquired English rights in the invention for a period (which Beard contested), he was one of the first to practice daguerreotype portraiture in England. Claudet improved the sensitizing process, further reducing camera exposure times, to less than 30 seconds. From 1841 to 1851 he operated a studio on the roof of the Adelaide Gallery, behind St Martin-in-the-Fields church, London. Claudet opened another studio at the Colosseum in Regent’s Park in 1847. In the summer of 1851 he moved his business to 107 Regent Street, where he established what he called a ‘Temple to Photography.’
The resulting image of Dickens standing, not yet with the familiar moustache or beard of the later portraits, is quite well known in the literature.
In A Companion to Charles Dickens, Michael Allen writes of this portrait:
‘It shows a clean shaven, solid, respectable man, well dressed, unsmiling, a man of business; it makes him look tall, though he was only 5 feet 8 inches. There is a solemnity about his face that was to deepen and age him prematurely, perhaps with good reason, all documented in the numerous photographs of him to appear over the next 20 years.’
The position of Dickens’s hand differs from that shown in published versions.
Although Richard Beard’s studio had used a mirror to invert portraits from 1841, most early daguerreotypes were laterally reversed. At the Great Exhibition of 1851, Claudet exhibited ‘Non-inverting portraits’ and the official report on the Great Exhibition made the following comment about Claudet’s daguerreotype portraits: “Amongst various excellences of which they are possessed, we may particularly mention that of their non-inverting. This is a great improvement…”. This daguerreotype portrait of Dickens, known to be by Claudet, was ‘non-inverted’, showing Dickens with a hair parting on the correct side of his head (his right, our left). (David Simkin).
Although I have described this image in the singular, at least two daguerreotypes were taken on this occasion. Photo-historian David Simkin has noticed that the many photographic reproductions are not identical to the surviving daguerreotype (see above). In the commonly reproduced photograph, Dickens’s left hand is resting on a different part of the table support compared with the original surviving daguerreotype. Simkin notes: ‘the daguerreotype photograph does not employ a negative and therefore every image on silver copper is unique’. More than one daguerreotype would be taken. ‘The customer would take away one or two cased portraits, but a business-minded photographer would retain copies to be re-photographed and engraved for publication.’
An article in the Harmsworth Monthly Pictorial Magazine in 1900 reproduced a version with Dickens’s costume heavily overpainted. A fine engraving was reproduced as a lantern slide, for lectures, probably in the late 19th century.
There was at least one other daguerreotype of Dickens taken at about this time. The photograph was reproduced in 1961 in Charles Dickens: a pictorial biography by J.B. Priestley. Judging by the lack of fine details, the image seems to be from a copy of the daguerreotype, rather than from the original. It is difficult to establish whether the vignetting was present in the original, or was introduced when the copy was made.
An engraving, based on the above daguerreotype, appeared in the folio Charles Dickens, Rare Print Collection () by Seymour Eaton, captioned ‘From a daguerreotype taken while writing DAVID COPPERFIELD.’ The first serial edition of David Copperfield was published in 1849.
A similar 19th-century engraving from a photograph is reproduced in Charles Dickens: His Tragedy and Triumph (1977) by Edgar Johnson, and the engraving includes the text ‘From a Daguerreotype taken by Mayall in 1851.’ The text gives 1849 as the date of original daguerreotype. Possibly, this was based on the same daguerreotype as the previous print, or another taken at the same sitting. The inclusion of more of the sitter in the lower portion of the composition suggests either that these extra areas were invented by the engraver, or that he had access to the original daguerreotype or a complete copy. A less fine engraving based on this one, or on the original daguerreotype, was reproduced in Appreciations and Criticisms of the Work of Charles Dickens by G.K. Chesterton, in 1911. The location of the original, or originals, which formed the guide for these two engravings is not known. The attribution to Mayall cannot be verified, but seems reasonable.
Letter to Lady Burdett-Coutts
A letter dated 23 December 1852 from Dickens to Angela Burdett-Coutts, whom he had entreated way back in 1841 not to have her photograph taken, indicates that he sat for his portrait in 1852, and was more than satisfied with the result.
‘I am happy to say that the little piece of business between the Sun and myself, came off with the greatest success. I took Mr Stone with me, thinking Mr Maclise might be hardly patient enough. The Artist who operated, is quite a Genius in that way, and has acquired a large stock of a very singular knowledge of all the little eccentricities of the light and the instrument. The consequence of which, is, that his results are very different from those of other men, I am disposed to think the portrait, by far the best specimen of anything in that way, I have ever seen. Some of the peculiarities inseparable from the process – are in it, but very greatly modified. I sat five times. It is not come home yet, as it is waiting for a case; but I hope you will be pleased with it…’
This seems without doubt to be a description of a sitting for J.E. Mayall. A note in the Pilgrim edition of the Letters, shows that on 31 December 1852 Dickens paid Mayall £3.3.0 for his photograph. Possibly, this December 1852 sitting was the one at which the above portrait (usually dated 1849-51) was taken.
It is perhaps interesting to read a word picture of Dickens at this time, as a comparison with the sun pictures. A description of the author in 1852 was written by an American traveller Sara Jane Clarke Lippincott (under the pseudonym Grace Greenwood), who was then visiting England:
‘He is rather slight, with a symmetrical head, spiritedly borne, and eyes beaming alike with genius and humor. Yet, for all the power and beauty of those eyes, their changes seemed to me to be from light to light. I saw in them no profound, pathetic depths, and there was around them no tragic shadowing. But I was foolish to look for these on such an occasion, when they were very properly left in the author’s study, with pens, ink, and blotting- paper, and the last written pages of “Bleak House.”’
The May 1853 installment for Bleak House included a brochure for Mayall’s Daguerreotype Portrait Galleries.
John Jabez Edwin Mayall
John Jabez Edwin Mayall (1813-1901), born John Meal in Oldham, Lancashire, had moved to Philadelphia in 1842 and taken up photography, quickly becoming known for the high quality of his daguerreotypes. In 1846 Mayall had returned to England, and worked for a short time with Antoine Claudet before establishing his own studio at 433 West Strand, initially calling himself ‘Professor Highschool.’ He exhibited 72 daguerreotypes at the 1851 Great Exhibition.
In 1852, Mayall advertised a second establishment in London, situated at 224 Regent Street on the corner of Argyll Place, which he claimed had ‘the finest situation for light in London.’ In an advertisement published in the Hastings & St Leonards News on 21 May 1852, visitors to London were invited to inspect ‘Mr Mayall’s extensive collection of Portraits of Eminent Men’ at both of Mayall’s Daguerreotype Institutions. An 1853 issue of Household Words, of which Dickens was editor, included an article entitled ‘Photography’. The major part of the piece, which was written by Henry William Wills and Henry Morley, was an account of a visit to the Regent Street studio of John E. Mayall, where ‘A thousand images of human creatures of each sex and of every age – such as no painter ever has produced – glanced at us from all sides, as if they would have spoken to us out of the hard silver.’ The writers describe the entire daguerreotype process.
A stereoscopic likeness
Dickens first grew a beard in 1853, and shaved it off in the same year. An 1854 painting by E.M. Ward shows him with beard and moustache. The next images we shall examine show him with a moustache and no beard, suggesting a date of 1853-54.
The best-known portrait of Dickens by Mayall is one half of a stereoscopic image. A later photographic copy of the stereo-daguerreotype is held by the Dickens House Museum. A Christie’s auction catalogue notes: ‘A stereoscopic portrait of Dickens was exhibited by Mayall at the Photographic Society’s exhibition in London in January 1855. A critic quoted in La Lumière, 3 February 1855, wrote “Au nombre des portraits stéréoscopiques exposé par M. Mayall, nous avons remarqué ceux de M. Charles Dickens et de Charles Mathws [sic], le spirituel acteur du Lyceum.”’
The introduction of stereoscopy is succinctly described in the Household Words ‘Photography’ article in 1853:
‘The application of photography to the stereoscope produces an extremely pretty toy, that is of no use except as an elegant and valuable illustration of a train of scientific reasoning. The instrument itself was invented some years since by Professor Wheatstone, to illustrate his discovery of the principles of binocular vision. In 1849 Sir David Brewster exhibited to the British Association at Birmingham a stereoscope adapted to the inspection of daguerreotype pictures. Afterwards he happened to describe the instrument to an optician in Paris, M. Duboscq Soleil, who being an enterprising man, constructed a number of such instruments on speculation. At the beginning of 1851 some of these were exhibited at one of the soirees of Lord Rosse; they excited attention, and the photographers of London, seizing the notion, very soon began to take stereoscopic portraits.’
Decades later, Mayall wrote to the Photographic News. The editor introduced the letter:
‘We referred in our notes last week to a photographic portrait of Charles Dickens, and the veteran photographer, J.E. Mayall, writes:– “I note an interesting article you have written in the PHOTOGRAPHIC NEWS on ‘Charles Dickens.’ I took him in 1851 for the stereoscope, and made him a present of my views of the Louvre at Paris. He wrote to me a characteristic answer of thanks: ‘I am deep in “Great Expectations,” but I run away every few minutes to look at myself in the stereoscope you have sent me. I begin to think I am not as good as I seem; but what a surprise did that little square box contain! A series of transparencies of my beloved Louvre. How did you arrive at the notion that this is a passion? I think Stone (Frank Stone) is in the secret, and let it out. Never mind; Bells in Regent Street will ring long and long to have fortunes told by the Photo-Magician, &c.’
This letter is a puzzle. Dickens wrote Great Expectations in 1860- 61, not 1850-51. Yet the surviving stereoscopic image, said to be by Mayall and supposedly from a daguerreotype, is evidently earlier than 1860. In the image, Dickens looks very much as he does in the profile portrait – moustache, but no beard – taken by Mayall, and dated as 1853-54. In addition, as we have seen, a stereoscopic portrait of Dickens by Mayall was exhibited in 1855, and this would seem the most likely contender. Also, by 1858 Dickens had grown a beard, now to be permanent.
What, then, of this odd reference to Great Expectations in Dickens’s letter to Mayall? It’s just possible that Dickens had two stereoscopic portraits taken by Mayall, ten years apart. Perhaps more likely, is the following explanation. The c.1860 gift included not only the slides of the Louvre but also a copy, most likely a paper print, of the earlier stereograph of Dickens himself, which perhaps he had not previously owned. Although Mayall states that he took Dickens’s stereo in 1851 (perhaps mis-remembering the date of the 1853-54 stereoscopic sitting), he does not date a year of his gift of stereoscope and Louvre transparencies, and Dickens’s letter of thanks, which was evidently 1860.
In 1851 Dickens’s father and infant daughter had died, and his wife Catherine had suffered a nervous collapse. That year and the next he was busy writing Bleak House and engaged in philanthropic work and amateur theatricals. In 1853 he had toured Italy, given the first of many public readings, started work on Hard Times, and all the while was editing Household Words. It is a decidedly weary and bedraggled man who sits in the photographer’s chair.
The c.1853-4 stereoscopic image may later have been transferred by Mayall to a paper print. His method of doing this was outlined at the Exhibition of Art-Industry in Paris, in 1855:
‘Mr Mayall, the well-known photographer, has recently made a novel and interesting addition to his various methods of producing likenesses, by transferring to paper what has been taken by the daguerreotype. His mode of operation as described to us, is exceedingly simple, and the result is most effective. He takes an enlarged negative copy, which, after undergoing some slight preparations to bring out any of the details that are faintly delineated, will yield any number of positives. If the copy is to remain black and white, but few touches by the artist will be required; but if colour be desired, the paper surface may be worked upon to the finish of the most delicate miniature. Some of the examples submitted to us could not be distinguished from the work of the most skillful miniature painter. The result is obtained by a peculiar application of the collodion process to photography.’
It seems that paper photographic copies of this picture were available in some form from very early on. A tiny, cropped (head and shoulders) albumen print is pasted into an album of photographs dated ‘late 1850s’ and attributed to (George) Herbert Watkins. The stereoscopic version in the Dickens House Museum, the only version that I have been able to find, is a paper print – perhaps an original Mayall collodion, from the daguerreotype.
This image was reproduced as an engraving, in Illustrated Times, 1 December 1855, and in Harper’s (shown here).
A bibliography, and acknowledgments, will be included in Part 2.
Stephen Herbert is a Visiting Research Fellow in the Visual and Material Culture Research Centre, Department of Art, Design and Architecture, Kingston University, London.
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Next Time: Part 2: Two portraits discovered in the 1990s.
[Some note numbers here do not correspond with those in the book published in 2012].
- David Simkin, ‘The Daguerreotype Process,’ Sussex PhotoHistory. [return to text]
- Charles Dickens, The Letters of Charles Dickens, Vol. 2, p. 284. [return to text]
- For more details of Beard’s studio, see ‘Photography at the Polytechnic,’ in Brenda Weeden, The Education of the Eye: History of the Royal Polytechnic Institution 1838-1881 (Granta, 2008) pp. 37-42. For a more detailed explanation of the illustration, see Simkin, ‘The Daguerreotype Process’. [return to text]
- For more on Claudet, his studios and techniques, see Stephen Monteiro. ‘Veiling the Mechanical Eye: Antoine Claudet and the Spectacle of Photography in Victorian London,’ Interdisciplinary Studies in the Long Nineteenth Century, 7 (2008). [return to text]
- This image is sometimes attributed to an American daguerreotype artist by the name of Unbek, taken during Dickens’s first trip to America. This is a compound error. It was not taken in America, and the “Unbek.” is a translation misunderstanding, being a contraction of “Unbekannt” (German, ‘unknown’). [return to text]
- Michael Allen, ‘A Sketch of The Life,’ in David Paroissien (ed.), A Companion to Charles Dickens (Blackwell, 2008) p. 13. [return to text]
- Harmsworth Monthly Pictorial Magazine, 1900. [return to text]
- Text supplied by David Simkin to the author, May 2011. [return to text]
- The ‘Notes on the Pictures’ section of the book reads: ‘Page 73. A daguerreotype portrait of Dickens taken in 1849, by Mayall, one of the most talented and fashionable photographers in London. The Dickens Fellowship.’ [return to text]
- Seymour Eaton, Charles Dickens, Rare Print Collection (Kennedy, 1900). [return to text]
- Edgar Johnson, Charles Dickens: His Tragedy and Triumph (Allen Lane, 1977). [return to text]
- G.K. Chesterton, Appreciations and Criticisms of the Work of Charles Dickens (J.M. Dent & Sons, 1911). [return to text]
- Footnote 1, letter from Dickens to W.H. Wills (24 December 1852), Pilgrim edition of the Letters, p. 834. ‘Account-book, MS Messers Coutts’. [return to text]
- Grace Greenwood, Haps and Mishaps of a Tour in Europe (Ticknor, Reed, and Fields, 1853/4), pp. 47-48. [return to text]
- Regina B. Oost, ‘“More Like Than Life”: Painting, Photography and Dickens’s Bleak House,’ in Stanley Friedman, Edward Guiliano and Michael Timko (eds), Dickens Studies Annual (AMS Press, 2001) pp. 143-144. [return to text]
- LoC title: ‘Unidentified man, possibly John Jabez Edwin Mayall, three-quarters length portrait, seated, with right elbow resting on table.’ The identification seems proven by comparison with a portrait of Mayall exhibited in a 1983 exhibition – ‘Robert Cornelius: Portraits from the dawn of photography’ (Smithsonian Institution). The Library of Congress catalogue entry reads: ‘Identification from Marion S. Carson inventory, possibly a self portrait. Attribution based on table used as studio prop. Reference: [William F.] Stapp. Robert Cornelius: Portraits from the dawn of photography (Smithsonian Institution Press, 1983) p. 22. Purchase; Marion S. Carson; 1999.’ [return to text]
- Email from David Simkin to Stephen Herbert, 11 May 2011. [return to text]
- Information about Mayall is from the Spartacus Educational website. [return to text]
- Henry Morley was one of the first professors of English Literature. His principal work was English Writers (10 volumes 1864-94). His diary for 1853 notes, ‘to Messrs Mayall for new processes in photography’ (Henry Shaen Solly, Life of Henry Morley, LL.D. (London: Edward Arnold, 1898), p. 218), and his biography frontispiece is a vignetted portrait. Henry William Wills (1810-1880) had served as one of the original literary staff of Punch, and assistant editor of Chambers’s Journal, and was a contributor to magazines including Household Words (from 1849) and All the Year Round (1859-69). [return to text]
- Henry Morley and Henry William Wills, ‘Photography’, Household Words, 19 March 1853. [return to text]
- Professor Malcolm Andrews, note to the author, May 2011. [return to text]
- Screened during a lecture at the museum by Andrew Xavier. See also Letters of Charles Dickens (2001) p. 199: ‘for CD’s photograph by Mayall in 1852, see Vol. VI, pp 834, 838, 840 and nn. An engraving of one of Mayall’s photographs of CD was included in the National Magazine, 1 December, and advertised in Little Dorrit.’ [return to text]
- Christie’s auction catalogue of 11 May 2001, London. [return to text]
- ‘Photography’, Household Words 1853, p. 60. A more comprehensive period account from the same periodical is ‘The Stereoscope,’ Household Words Vol. 8 No. 181, 10 September 1853, pp. 37-42. [return to text]
- Mayall has inserted “Frank Stone” where Dickens wrote “Stone.” Frank Stone, father of the painter Marcus Stone who illustrated many works by Dickens, died in November 1859. Mayall had exhibited a coloured collodion portrait of Frank Stone at the Manchester Photographic Society exhibition in 1856. Dickens may have meant Marcus Stone. [return to text]
- The Photographic News, 27 July 1888. [return to text]
- ‘GAD’S HILL, HIGHAM BY ROCHESTER, KENT. Monday, June 11th, 1859. On Saturday night I found, very much to my surprise and pleasure, the photograph on my table at Tavistock House. It is not a very cheerful or pleasant presentation of my daughters; but it is wonderfully like for all that, and in some details remarkably good. When I came home yesterday I tried it in the large Townshend stereoscope, in which it shows to great advantage. It is in the little stereoscope at present on the drawing-room table.’ [return to text]
- W. George Wallis, The Exhibition of Art-Industry in Paris, 1855 (London: Virtue; Paris: Stassin & Xavier, 1855), English edition, p. 167. [return to text]
- National Portrait Gallery, London: ‘Charles Dickens by (George) Herbert Watkins. Albumen print, late 1850’s. ⅞ x ¼ inch (22 x 19mm) oval.’ [return to text]
- In 1858, Dickens would be photographed in stereo by Watkins. National Portrait Gallery, London: ‘Charles Dickens by (George) Herbert Watkins albumen stereoscopic card, 29 April 1858, 3¼ x 6⅞ inches (84 x 174mm) overall. Given by Jane Souter Hipkins, 1930NPG x5585’. [return to text]
- Harper’s New Monthly Magazine Vol. 12 No. 69, Feb 1856, p. 381; Illustrated Times, 1 December 1855. [return to text]